Pick a state, any state.
In California, heroin-related hospital visits are surging. In Massachusetts, more than 1,000 people died from opiate-related ODs last year. In Missouri, the number of heroin-related deaths recently doubled. In Ohio, heroin deaths are reaching record highs. Meanwhile, “Heroin deaths in Connecticut continue to skyrocket, a burgeoning, exploding crisis that requires immediate, substantial attention,” a U.S. senator recently warned.
In Oregon, former beauty queens are busted for possession of heroin, which officials call the state’s top drug threat. In Utah, authorities say a recent mammoth heroin bust represents “a real shift in the narcotics problem.” In North Carolina, magazines ask, “Why are kids…from Charlotte’s wealthy neighborhoods and good schools, turning to the deadliest drugs?” In Rhode Island, the number of babies born addicted (“most commonly [to] opioids like prescription pain medications or heroin”) almost doubled between 2005 and 2012. In Vermont, the governor spent his entire 2014 “State of the State” address talking about a single subject. ”What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” he said, as he began.
This is America in 2015, and as Sam Quinones describes in his astonishing, monumental new book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, we’re in the midst of “the worst drug scourge to ever hit the country,” measuring by its death toll. Unlike the heroin plague of the 1970s or the crack epidemic of the 1980s, however, the current disaster is “happening quietly,” he writes. This has a lot to do with the population perhaps hardest hit: middle-class and affluent white folks. Shock and shame are powerful silencers.
“Children of the most privileged group in the wealthiest country in the history of the world were getting hooked and dying in almost epidemic numbers from substances meant to, of all things, numb pain,” he writes. “Crime was at historic lows, drug overdose deaths at record highs. A happy facade covered a disturbing reality.”
Dreamland is really two stories, divided by a prescription pad. On one side is the painkiller OxyContin, which clocked a reported $3.1 billion in annual sales, even after its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, paid a $634.5 million criminal fine in 2007 for misleading marketing practices. On the other side is a “sticky dark substance known as ‘black tar,’ a semi-processed heroin.” Chemically, the substances aren’t so different.
The story of black tar heroin traces back to a small, dirt-poor town in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Xalisco wouldn’t be noteworthy were it not a staging area for what Quinones — a former veteran L.A. Times reporter, who writes with clarity and confidence — describes as a “new kind of drug trafficking in America.” The trafficking system took root outside Los Angeles, in the late 1980s and ’90s and has since spread to San Diego, Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Indianapolis, Nashville, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and other cities. If you’ve heard about heroin in your town, there’s a good chance it came from opium poppies growing in the Mexican mountains.
The Xalisco Boys aren’t the flashy, gun-slinging gangsters you’ve seen in Hollywood films, though. The network’s foot soldiers — a near-endless supply of farm boys eager to make cash to send or bring back home — are polite, nonviolent, salaried, and sober. Their product is cheap and pure, and “Their job is to drive the city with their mouths full of little uninflated balloons of black tar heroin, twenty-five or thirty at a time in one mouth,” Quinones writes. “They look like chipmunks…[with] a bottle of water at the ready so if police pull them over, they swig the water and swallow the balloons.” Quinones, who has written two previous books about Mexico, is particularly good at taking us inside the minds of these low-level dealers. “Back in the ranchos, nothing said that a man had moved up in the world like walking around in public in dark-blue [Levi’s] 501s,” he writes.
In one of the book’s more captivating chapters, he describes the establishment of a “cell” in Columbus, Ohio, from the perspective of regional manager identified as “the Man.” After arriving in town, the Man sends for more “kids from Xalisco,” finds a car lot willing to swap for new delivery cars every few months, and establishes twice-daily shifts of drivers who meet addicts at Burger King and in Kmart parking lots. Soon, the Man has to hire a tailor in L.A. to sew custom underwear for female members of his crew. “For more than a year, he sent two girls a month back to Mexico with a hundred thousand dollars in pure Columbus, Ohio, profit tucked in their corsets.”
To addicts across the U.S., the little balloons from Xalisco Boys “became a brand every bit as dependable as a Coke can or a Holiday Inn sign,” Quinones reports. And the distribution network — which lacked a central power structure that could be easily toppled — grew resilient enough to absorb the largest joint DEA/FBI operation in U.S. history, involving more than 180 arrests in a dozen cities. After “Operation Tar Pit,” heroin deliveries in Santa Fe paused only for a day.
In the other half of Dreamland, Quinones takes readers over some of the terrain New York Times reporter Barry Meier mapped in his 2003 book on OxyContin, Pain Killer: A “Wonder” Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death. Quinones introduces readers to the man Meier called a “scientific superstar:” Dr. Russell Portenoy, a pain expert and opiate evangelist who helped usher in an era when patients’ pain is measured as a “fifth vital sign” alongside temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. We also meet Arthur Sackler, the fantastically rich (and now deceased) co-owner of Purdue Pharma whom Meier described as a hybrid M.D.-adman who, many believed, “cloaked his pursuit of profit and power behind the veil of science and research.”
Dreamland picks up the same threads that Meier explored, and Quinones’s chapter-long riff on OxyContin’s rise is a masterpiece. I would reprint here it in full, if I could; it’s that important and well reported. But I’ll just quote a passage in which he frames the story:
The decade of the 1990s was the era of the blockbuster drug, the billion-dollar pill, and a pharmaceutical sales force arms race was a part of the excess of the time. The industry’s business model was based on creating a pill – for cholesterol, depression, pain, or impotence — and then promoting it with growing numbers of salespeople. During the 1990s and into the next decade, Arthur Sackler’s vision of pharmaceutical promotion reached its most exquisite expression as drug companies hired ever-larger sales teams. In 1995, 35,000 Americans were pharmaceutical sales reps. Ten years later, a record 110,000 people — Sackler’s progeny all — were traveling the country selling legal drugs in America.
Quinones adds layers of nauseating detail: the exorbitant bonuses for Purdue salespeople who peddled OxyContin to primary-care docs under-trained in treating chronic pain; the promotional videos that under-reported the pill’s addictive potential (never vetted by the FDA, as they ought to have been); the OxyContin-branded hats, toys, mugs, golf balls, CDs, pads, and pens that rained down on doctors; the Purdue lawyers who made phone calls to folks talking candidly about addiction in small-town newspapers. At one point, during a 2007 sentencing hearing for Purdue executives, the mother of an OxyContin overdose victim tells them, “You are nothing more than a large corporate drug cartel.”
Dreamland’s chapters jump in time and place from a heroin trafficker’s childhood in Nayarit to a legless addict in Portland, Ore. to a grief-stricken parent in Southern Ohio, and so on. It’s an ambitious approach reminiscent of Eugene Jarecki’s sweeping 2012 documentary, The House I Live In, which offered a devastating, pointillist portrait of the War on Drugs, through interviews with professors from Ohio State and Harvard, drug cops from Florida to New Mexico, a federal judge in Iowa, and a prisoner in Oklahoma who tells Jarecki, “I have life without parole for three ounces of methamphetamine.” In Dreamland, so many names, facts, and breakdowns of complex concepts can be overwhelming, at times; I found myself pausing to give my brain a chance to breathe.
But such a wide-reaching approach seems necessary to convey the “catastrophic synergy” when the paths of Purdue Pharma and the Xalisco Boys cross. “And so it went,” he writes:
OxyContin [came] first, introduced by reps from Purdue Pharma over steak and dessert and in air-conditioned doctors’ offices. Within a few years, black tar heroin followed in tiny, uninflated balloons held in the mouths of sugarcane farm boys from Xalisco driving old Nissan Sentras to meet-ups in McDonald’s parking lots…
“I’ve yet to find one who didn’t start with OxyContin, [a family physician in Southern Ohio] said. “They wouldn’t be selling this quantity of heroin on the street right now if they hadn’t made these decisions in the boardroom.”
The U.S. will never solve its deadly opiate epidemic if we don’t first admit we have a problem. And Dreamland is one of those rare books that’s big and vivid and horrifying enough to shake up our collective consciousness. In that sense, its comparable to Nick Reding’s 2009 book, Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town, which landed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review thanks to a Walter Kirn review quoting Reding’s description of what it’s like inside an exploding meth lab: “His skin was dripping off his body in sheets…His nose was all but gone now, too, and he ran back and forth among the gathered neighbors, unable to scream, for his esophagus and his voice box had cooked inside his throat.”
Methland covers different ground than Dreamland, chemically and geographically. But it’s a similar attempt to sweep startling images into readers’ minds. Consider these passages from the books’ introductions. First, an excerpt from Dreamland, after Quinones describes the heroin overdose death of a private-school-educated 21 year old from Columbus, Ohio:
Drug overdoses were killing more people every year than car accidents…Kids were dying in the Rust Belt of Ohio and the Bible Belt of Tennessee. Some of the worst of it was in Charlotte’s best country club enclaves. It was in Mission Viejo and Simi Valley in suburban Southern California, and in Indianapolis, Salt Lake, and Albuquerque, in Oregon and Minnesota and Oklahoma and Alabama. For each of the thousands who died every year, many hundreds more were addicted.
Via pills, heroin had entered the mainstream. The new addicts were football players and cheerleaders; football was almost a gateway to opiate addiction. Wounded soldiers returned from Afghanistan hooked on pain pills and died in America. Kids got hooked in college and died there. Some of these addicts were from rough corners of rural Appalachia. But many more were from the U.S. middle class. They lived in communities where the driveways were clean, the cars were new, and the shopping centers attracted congregations of Starbucks, Home Depot, CVS, and Applebee’s. They were the daughters of preachers, the sons of cops and doctors, the children of contractors and teachers and business owners and bankers.
This section from Methland, meanwhile, follows an idyllic description of Oelwein, Iowa, (population 6,772), where much of the book is set:
And yet, things are not entirely what they seem. On a sultry May evening, with…temperatures approaching ninety degrees at dusk, pass by the Perk and Hub City on the way into Oelwein’s tiny Ninth Ward. Look down at the collapsing sidewalk, or across the vacant lot at a burned-out home. At the Conoco station, just a few blocks south of Sacred Heart [Catholic Church], a young man in a trench coat picks through the Dumpster, shaking despite the heat. Here, amid the double-wides of the Ninth Ward, among the packs of teenage boys riding, gang-like, on their Huffy bicycles, the economy and culture of Oelwein are more securely tied to a drug than to either of the two industries that have forever sustained the town: farming and small business. This is the part of Oelwein, and of the small-town United States, not visible from the plane window as the flat stretch of the country rolls by. After sundown in the Ninth Ward, the warm, nostalgic light that had bathed the nation beneath a late-afternoon transcontinental flight is gone.
Against the oppressive humidity, the night’s spells begin to take shape. Mixed with the moist, organic scent of cut grass at dew point is the ether-stink of methamphetamine cooks at work in their kitchens. Main Street, just three blocks distant, feels as far away as Chicago. For life in Oelwein is not, in fact, a picture-postcard amalgamation of farms and churches and pickup trucks, Fourth of July fireworks and Nativity scenes, bake sales and Friday-night football games. Nor is life simpler or better or truer here than it is in Los Angeles or New York or Tampa or Houston. Life in the small-town United States has, though, changed considerably in the last three decades…Main Street was no longer divided between Leo’s and the Do Drop Inn, or between the Perk and the Bakery: it was partitioned between the farmer and the tweaker.
There is a David Lynch-y vibe to both of these passages, where, like in Twin Peaks or the opening sequence of Blue Velvet, we zoom in on wholesome archetypes to find them broken, corrupted — a Norman Rockwell painting on a rotting canvas. But there’s a key difference between Lynch’s work and Pain Killer, Methland, and Dreamland, which, together, make a searing nonfiction triptych of 21st-century American life. Switching off the TV won’t make these stories disappear.
On September 15, 2008, the morning banking giant Lehman Brothers filed the largest bankruptcy case in U.S. history, business reporters, historians, ex-finance mavens, and business-savvy novelists across New York City awoke to find themselves in a high-stakes race to be the first out with a book on the Panic of 2008. Anyone who has spent time in the business section of Barnes & Noble lately knows who won this race: Too Big to Fail, New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin’s account of the frenzied weeks leading up to the Lehman bankruptcy, published in October 2009. The HBO miniseries of Sorkin’s book, starring William Hurt, Ed Asner, Paul Giamatti, and, apparently, half the white male population of Hollywood, also looks to win the race for first film out of the gate when it premieres tonight, May 23. But if Sorkin’s lightning-quick fingers, and his formidable resources as chief of the Times’ DealBook blog, put him first across the finish line, that doesn’t mean he has written the best book on the crisis. As a New Yorker with an interest in board room intrigue and a taste for schadenfreude, I’ve done my best to read every book on the banking crisis that has come out since the Lehman filing. What follows is my handicapping of the race for the best book on the subject:
Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: No one else even comes close. Anyone who has followed Lewis’ career, starting with Liar’s Poker, his account of his adventures selling bonds at Salomon Brothers in the go-go 1980s, knows that his books hew to a timeworn formula: he follows a quirky, sometimes half-mad contrarian, using his hero’s off-center view on his subject to show how a complex, often abstruse market functions. In The Big Short, he focuses on a crew of oddball hedge fund managers who “short” – that is, bet against – the exploding market for subprime mortgages in the years before the crash. Lewis is a world-class storyteller and he can be very, very funny, but what sets his books apart is that he combines these skills with a genuine understanding of the brain-melting complexity of the economic systems he is describing. In his hands, all those abstract terms you’ve been puzzling over on the news – credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, mortgage-backed securities, and so on – become real as you watch his plucky band of misfits slowly figure out that the emperor has no clothes. When the money starts rolling in, you cheer, not just because the little guys are winning, but because their triumph is a victory for common sense over gold-plated, government-backed flim flam.
Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail: In the news room, the front-page article that gives reader a breathless, blow-by-blow account of a newsworthy event is called a “ticktock,” and Too Big to Fail is essentially a 539-page ticktock. Plainly modeled on Bob Woodward’s thrillerish accounts of bureaucratic infighting in the nation’s capital, Too Big to Fail tells the story of the 2008 financial crash through the eyes of the banking CEOs and federal regulators who brought the world’s largest economy to the brink and wrenched it back just before it careened off the cliff. Sorkin takes readers inside the chandeliered conference rooms at the New York Federal Reserve building in September 2008 as the CEOs of America’s largest banks roll up the sleeves of their Charles Tyrwitt shirts and pull all-nighters like a bunch of panicked college kids during finals week. But as with Woodward’s tomes, the virtues of Too Big to Fail are also its failings. Sorkin, arguably the best business-beat reporter in American daily journalism, has fantastic sources and he offers a crystal clear picture of what happened, but very little sense of why. Unlike Lewis, who sides with the outsiders, Sorkin’s sources are, for the most part, the same bespoke-suited bejillionaires who blew up the economy in the first place. Sorkin makes an effort to offer a broader perspective, but ultimately he is a prisoner of his sources, to whom the financial crisis of 2008 was a natural disaster, an act of God over which they had little control.
Roger Lowenstein’s The End of Wall Street: The third-place finish is unfair because Lowenstein’s main stumbling block is that he wasn’t first. Lowenstein’s book, published in 2010, is 250 pages shorter than Too Big to Fail and yet it offers more insight into the causes of the collapse than Sorkin’s does. A former Wall Street Journal reporter who has made a career of writing books on financial crises starting with the 1998 collapse of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund, Lowenstein is able to draw on reporting going back to the 1970s and ’80s to titrate the toxic brew of federal banking deregulation and financial innovation that created the boom in subprime mortgages. But ultimately the drama of the book falls on the same frantic calls between CEOs trying to save their tottering banks and coffee-fueled all-nighters at the Fed building that drive Too Big to Fail. Because Lowenstein wasn’t as quick out of the gate and doesn’t have Sorkin’s magic Rolodex, his book suffers by comparison.
House of Cards by William D. Cohan: House of Cards too often reads like the author was running late for a train. Focusing on the March 2008 collapse of Bear Stearns, the first of the big banking dominoes to fall, House of Cards has no shortage of colorful characters or outlandishly stupid financial stratagems. But built as it is around the epic battle for control of the firm between old-school banker Ace Greenberg and the bridge-obsessed stockbroker Jimmy Cayne, the book suffers from some rather long-winded rehashing of old news. It doesn’t help that Bear Stearns, though worth billions, was a relatively small player among the New York banking behemoths, and when it had to be sold for pennies on the dollar to JP Morgan Chase, its demise only foreshadowed the far greater mayhem to come when Lehman fell in September.
The Buyout of America by Josh Kosman: The Buyout of America, about the secretive private-equity business, has all the ingredients of a Zeitgeist-puncturing work of muckraking journalism in the mold of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Nick Reding’s Methland. Private equity firms collect vast pots of money from wealthy financiers and institutional investors like universities and pension plans, and use the money – along with even bigger pots of borrowed cash – to buy underperforming companies. (If you remember the Richard Gere character in Pretty Woman, you have the basic idea.) In a best-case scenario, private equity firms perform a valuable and necessary service by taking risks on companies no one else wants, but in practice, Kosman says, these firms take fewer risks than they claim and can cause grievous harm to the companies they buy, cutting costs and firing valuable employees to get their target companies out from under mountains of debt. This was especially true in the first years of the new century because borrowing costs were so low and the buyout market was so overheated. Kosman predicts the excesses of the private equity boom will begin to sour over the next eighteen months, leading to “the likely collapse of half of the 3,188 American companies PE firms bought from 2000 to 2008.”
Sounds like great stuff, which is why I plunked down my $26.95 to buy The Buyout of America in hardback days after it came out in 2009. But Kosman, a senior reporter for the trade publication Buyouts Newsletter, just doesn’t deliver the goods. For one thing, with a few notorious exceptions, the outlook for buyouts looks to be improving in 2011, not cratering as Kosman predicted. To make matters worse, Kosman never quite pierces the cone of silence that surrounds the private equity world and much of the book ends up rehashing old cases of private equity perfidy you can read about elsewhere.
Horses of a Different Color:
Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges & Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic: Neither Dee nor Haslett is writing directly about the 2008 crash – indeed, Haslett’s book is set largely in Boston – but both nevertheless offer excellent windows onto the perverse workings of the Wall Street mind. Dee’s novel, The Privileges, centers on the family of Adam Morey, a private equity guru who engineers an illegal insider trading network, earning millions of dollars that he socks away at an offshore bank. The book gradually reveals itself to be a satire of über-rich New Yorkers, but you could easily miss the darts Dee is aiming at his characters because he so rarely steps outside the cosseted, self-justifying world the Moreys have built around themselves. Even more daringly, Dee doesn’t punish Morey for his sins. By flouting conventional dramatic rules, Dee robs his story of a morally satisfying ending, but his bold move frees him to create a devastatingly honest portrait of the rot at the center of the American culture of success.
Union Atlantic is more conventional in its plotting, pitting a nearly sociopathically ambitious young banker against a dotty old high school history teacher named Charlotte Graves, who represents dying Old Yankee values. In lesser hands, this would end up the potted morality tale it is designed to be (her name is Graves – get it?), but Haslett, author of the luminous book of stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, has a gift for language and for conveying people’s inner lives. Haslett has a journeyman’s understanding of finance, and some of the minor characters read as though they stumbled in from a Tom Wolfe pastiche, but the central figures are richly imagined and the climax, when it comes, is deeply satisfying.
Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance: Finally, if you want to take the long view on financial crises, you can do no better than Lords of Finance, which traces the causes of the global economic depression following 1929 stock market crash. In this remarkable book, Ahamed retells the story of how the fallout from World War I led inexorably to Hitler’s Germany, not through the conventional lens of the era’s politicians and generals, but through the eyes of the central bankers of America, Britain, France and Germany, the four main powers at Versailles in 1919. What comes through is how the decisions of a few powerful men can affect the lives of millions, and just how catastrophic the effects can be when those in power act foolishly.
As an editor I’ll always champion publishing in hardcover, but I confess as a reader I prefer to crack open a paperback. So in 2010 I caught up with two extraordinary works of nonfiction that were hits last year: Nick Reding’s Methland and Dave Cullen’s Columbine. These are books that feel like the best documentaries: intimate, raw, alive. Plus, their authors achieve that ineffable combination of reporter and writer with ease and grace.
I also spent much of 2010 reading Primo Levi. There are three full biographies, but I liked Ian Thomson’s Primo Levi: A Life best: a book as full of life as its subject. I continue to find that The Periodic Table bears re-reading as often as possible, for a reminder of Levi’s curiosity and and his humor. I was also struck reading Levi’s The Monkey’s Wrench for the first time: a wonderfully strange book, a novel I suppose, narrated largely through the stories of a ribald Piedmontese construction worker who is somehow both wise and clueless. Finally, I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books aloud to our little boy, and I can’t say enough about the deep (and often near wordless) pleasures of Donald Crews’ books, especially Freight Train and Parade, and Tim Egan’s sublime Dodsworth series, featuring a deadpan duck and the best straight-man in literature, Dodsworth.
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H.L. Mencken wrote that rubbernecking – that voyeuristic impulse to gawk at someone else’s difficulties – was “almost a complete treatise on American psychology.” The term perfectly describes the recent outpouring of interest in the industrial heartland of the United States, known as the Rust Belt, which has been in decline since the 1970s and which has suffered even more during the recession. First came news stories about places like Dayton, Ohio, where unemployment has more than doubled since the beginning of 2008 thanks to the closing of several manufacturing plants, or Gary, Indiana, the home of the largest integrated steel mill in the northern hemisphere, where an average of one person a week is murdered and over a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. Then came the literary interest: 2009 saw the publication of books such as Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of a Small American Town, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’s Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, all of which catalogued the various social and personal ills, and the universal sense of despair about the future, that plague Rust Belt cities and towns.
In the crowded field of “recession literature,” however, Philipp Meyer’s relentlessly pessimistic debut novel American Rust has attracted an outsized share of acclaim and attention, and deservedly so. The book follows Isaac English and Billy Poe, two friends whose families have anchored them to the steelworking town of Buell, Pennsylvania. Isaac is the smartest kid in the entire county, but is stuck tending to his disabled father and trying to understand his mother’s recent suicide. Billy, meanwhile, passed up an offer to play football at Colgate College just because he was too stubborn to leave. At the ripe old age of twenty, both can already see an unfulfilling future stretching out in front of them.
So Isaac strikes out for California. In his head he takes on the persona of “the kid,” a modern-day Huck Finn figure whose idea of freedom involves studying astrophysics at Lawrence Livermore. On the way to the Pittsburgh rail yards, he runs into Billy Poe, and the two take shelter from the rain in an abandoned factory. Unknowingly, they have trespassed on the territory of three vagrants who assault Billy and hold him at knife-point, and Isaac is forced to kill one of them in order to save his friend.
Both boys panic and hastily try to cover up their crime, and in doing so reveal the self-destructive tendencies that consume them over the course of the novel. The next day, the police arrest Billy, who feels that he has little choice but to take the blame for a crime he did not commit. He stubbornly refuses to implicate Isaac or even talk to a public defender, which lands him in prison; there, his hair-trigger temper makes him an outcast among outcasts. Meanwhile, Isaac treats his escape as an adventure at first, but eventually his guilt at abandoning his father and sister slowly consumes him, and the picaresque tale of “the kid” takes on more and more false bravado with each humiliation that he endures, from washing himself in the bathroom of a diner to getting his money stolen by a tramp.
The murder begins to poison those who have a stake in Billy’s and Isaac’s future as well. Billy’s mother Grace despairs that her decision to stay in the Valley, and her refusal to throw her deadbeat husband Virgil out of her life altogether, has robbed her of a career and a a son. Isaac’s sister Lee feels like she has to save both her brother Isaac and her former lover Billy, whom she abandoned for the Ivy League and an unfulfilling marriage to a wealthy classmate. And local police chief Bud Harris, who once convinced the local prosecutor to dismiss an assault charge against Billy, wonders whether he should try to save the boy a second time, or whether such an effort will prove as effective as “trying to catch a body falling from a skyscraper.”
American Rust is an ambitious book, both in terms of its structure (it follows six narrators) and its subject (“the ugly reverse of the American Dream,” according to one character). As a result, it occasionally loses its focus. At times, the reader can at times get lost in a sea of introspection that is leavened only occasionally with action. Certain passages sag under the weight of the characters’ regret, indecision, and self-loathing, and the plot takes a long time to develop forward momentum; the murder takes place at the end of the first chapter, but it is not until about halfway through the book that Poe gets arrested and Isaac begins hopping trains for points west. Meyer also cannot resist an ostentatious tribute to his literary forebears once in a while. For example, Isaac’s sister Lee broods over the relative merits of James Joyce, Henry James, and Jean-Paul Sartre for almost an entire page (there is no other literary criticism in the entire novel), and Meyer tells the reader several times that Isaac’s mother killed herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and drowning herself, a grisly tribute to Virginia Woolf. Finally, the ending, which sees Bud Harris transform from a beleaguered Good Samaritan into a self-serving vigilante, feels unearned; nothing in the first 300 pages of the book sets up such a drastic personality change.
Still, these authorial missteps do not really detract from the book’s ability to portray the Rust Belt in new, unsparing, and unsentimental ways. Ten years ago, fictional post-industrial towns served merely as stages on which to act out much larger melodramas. In Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, for example, misery comes not from large, impersonal forces but from the choices that the characters themselves make. Russo is much more raconteur than social commentator, however, which gives him the freedom to write in a decidedly tragicomic mode, and to make his characters relatively ambivalent about their own hardships; at one point, the novel’s protagonist, Miles Roby, asks, “If I was so unhappy, wouldn’t I know?” The plot of Empire Falls, in other words, just happens to be set in a declining mill town in Maine, and although there are moments of genuine suffering and humiliation in Russo’s novel, they are the exception rather than the rule.
In American Rust, the setting is the story. Isaac and Billy’s hometown of Buell is a stand-in for any number of Rust Belt towns like Dayton and Gary: its factories have been shut and its good jobs have been gone for nearly two decades, its former steelworkers, who in the 1980s made twenty dollars an hour, now bag groceries for less than five, and neither its residents nor its municipal government can make ends meet. Besides getting the economic indicators right, Meyer understands that socioeconomic malaise and personal malaise are two sides of the same coin. He shows, through the eyes of each of the main characters, the human consequences of a sick economy, which include desperation, psychic distress, moral confusion, and the real or imagined loss of one’s free will. He has the luxury of space and unmediated access to his characters’ thoughts, which allows him to explore a familiar topic – the effects of a prolonged economic downturn – in ways that writers of non-fiction cannot.
As a result, American Rust provides a gentle corrective to the kind of fact-and-statistic-based reportage that focuses more on rubrics and measurements (punctuated, of course, by the occasional human interest story) than the recession’s non-economic effect on individuals. A newspaper article about a rise in shoplifting, for instance, provokes quiet a different reaction from the reader than Isaac’s theft of an overcoat from a Wal-Mart:
The other customers stared intently at their merchandise until he passed. Embarrassed to look at you. Who wouldn’t be? Except the kid does not care. Possessed of a higher mission—self-improvement. Resource gathering. Like the original man—starts from scratch. A new society. Beginning in Men’s Outerwear. All those coats. Never know how much you value a coat. Took months to make in the old days. Now you just go to a store. Don’t be nervous, she’s looking at you.
The novel is also much-needed challenge to the kind of myth-making that the political commentariat has forced down Americans’ throats over the past few years. One the one hand, there are the wedge-drivers like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who pit a mythological “real America” (blue-collar, religious, small town, uncorrupted) against the so-called “coastal elites.” On the other, there are the tone-deaf and the contemptuous. At a San Francisco fundraiser in April of 2008, for example, then-candidate Barack Obama nearly derailed his primary campaign by commenting about small Pennsylvania towns where people “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” And New York Times columnist Frank Rich has spent the better part of a year celebrating the slow and violent death of “a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind.” Clearly, it is much easier to misrepresent places like Buell for the sake of political gain, or else to dismiss them as irrelevant and insignificant, than it is to treat them without cynicism or contempt.
How, then, to categorize this book? Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, American Rust documents the psychological and moral tangle that comes with poverty, something that people with savings accounts, secure jobs, and enough disposable income to spend on a hardcover book usually cannot intuit, or else choose to forget. In stylistic terms, Meyer’s clipped, stream-of-consciousness narration brings to mind not only the modernists (Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce) but also Cormac McCarthy, especially when Isaac begins to refer to himself as “the kid,” just like the narrator of Blood Meridian.
The book’s dust jacket provides the most commercially shrewd answer to the question of literary descent, however. American Rust, it says, belongs with “Steinbeck’s novels of restless lives during the Great Depression.” On the surface, the comparison seems fair; both Meyer and Steinbeck wrote about times of extraordinary economic insecurity, both created characters who struggle for independence despite their circumstances, and, most of all, both resisted the easy sentimentality of many writers of “regional” fiction.
But there are no Tom Joads in Buell, Pennsylvania, and Philipp Meyer is no romantic. Steinbeck’s fiction, though often stark, had brave heroes, clear moral lessons, and even the barest hints of redemption playing about their edges. In American Rust, poverty does not ennoble the dispossessed; instead, it leads them down the path of moral hazard, where they rationalize theft, murder, and other bad decisions in the name of survival. At best, the constant presence of the characters’ internal monologues allows the reader to understand, if not pardon, their worst choices.
Meyer also does not share Steinbeck’s tendency to sermonize. There are a few grand pronouncements about The Way Things Are (“We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”), but Meyer always dilutes them by putting them in the mouths of secondary characters, or else by immediately exposing them in a character’s internal monologue as empty clichés:
In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place. A brilliant observation. She was probably about the ten millionth person to think it.
Ultimately, American Rust is not a hymn to the fraying brotherhood of man, and its characters do not survive for the sake of illustrating how despair fortifies the spirit or poverty strips away all pretenses or some other uplifting observation about the human condition. Instead, Meyer insists only that his readers pay attention, even (or perhaps especially) to those whose main accomplishment is the simple act of carrying on, of finding the desire to “keep setting one foot in front of the other.” In that sense his goal is at once humble and profound, and deeply sympathetic to those who can only seek imperfect improvements upon unacceptable circumstances.
I don’t read much non-fiction. I’m perpetually caught up in the endless flood of new novels. But Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town caught my eye from the first time I saw it, in hardcover on a bookstore table a year or so ago. The American meth epidemic holds a certain morbid fascination for me—the disturbing photographs of dead-eyed addicts, the vague sense of a low-level apocalypse transpiring just out of sight, that time when the police did a raid of the trailer park across the street from an apartment my dad was renting in Oceano, California, and—rumor has it—found thirty-two meth labs in forty-odd trailers.
The scope of Methland is vast. Reding looks at every angle of the meth epidemic, from the political machinations affecting the sale of ephedrine to the Mexican drug cartels that move the drug across borders. The narrative focus of the book, however, is on a single small town: Oelwein, Iowa, population 6,126. That number alone offers a hint at the economic disasters that have convulsed the town—and countless other rural communities across this country—over the past few decades: in 1960, the town had a population of eight thousand. But three out of four farms in the county have gone out of business since then, the railway has left, and wages at the town’s meatpacking plant have plummeted; in 1992 the plant was bought by Gillette, and the union was dissolved overnight. Wages fell from $18 an hour plus benefits and stock in the company, to $6.20 an hour without health insurance and without the possibility of advancement. Entrepreneurial meth dealers moved into the economic vacuum.
Reding presents us with a perfect storm. Local farmers, struggling to stay in business and desperate to avoid foreclosure in an era of stagnant corn prices, aren’t necessarily above selling chemical fertilizer—a key ingredient in the type of meth being manufactured in Oelwein—to meth cooks. Workers at the meatpacking plant, struggling to survive on $6.20 an hour, need some means of staying awake to work suddenly necessary double shifts. In a town where half the storefronts are boarded up and eighty percent of kindergartners, according to Reding, qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, the appeal of a drug that fills its users with a sense of well-being isn’t incomprehensible.
This is a meticulously researched, quietly brilliant and unexpectedly moving account of a town’s descent, and of its struggle to pull itself back from the edge.